Picture a delicately carved silver dish piled high with quivering cubes of rose milk lokhoum, barely set and opalescent. This tower of pink jellies, as wobbly-legged as a newborn giraffe, sits perched on a folded suede opera glove. In the background, a complex but translucent inter-knitting of pink pepper, fruits, roses, and white tea recalls the faded-silk grandeur of both Etro’s Etra and Rajasthan, a series of polite, sepia-toned portraits of India as seen through the rose-tinted glasses of imperialists.
Oh dear. This is rather unfortunate.
I have huge respect for Francis Kurkdijan as a man and as a perfumer. I own quite a few of his perfumes (Absolue pour le Soir, Eau Noire, Cologne Pour Le Soir), and greedily covet others that I don’t (his original Oud, Oud Cashmere Mood, Lumiere Noire Pour Homme, Enlevement au Serail). I’m hard pressed to think of a composition of his that I can’t at least appreciate, even if I don’t want to own it myself.
Baccarat Rouge 540 is an exception. Unfortunately, it manages to be the perfect storm of all the notes I hate, all of them converging at once to screw with my head. And it sticks to my skin like glue (ain’t that the way it goes).
The top notes are pleasant, barely – a brief succulence in the form of oranges, saffron, and marigold that combines in such a way as to suggest a ripe red berry. For a moment, I am also reminded of the radiant freshness of his original Oud, a metallic brightness of spilled orange juice and yellow saffron powder. The jasmine here smells fresh, like a green-scent breeze moving through a line of cottons hung out to dry, and is reminiscent in its crispness of both Eau Sauvage and Kurkdijan’s own Aqua Vitae – safe to say that rather than jasmine sambac or grandiflorum, this note is probably Hedione, a wonderful aromachemical that expands the lungs with a radiant, green jasmine sensation.
Unfortunately, the fruity floral top notes get swallowed up almost immediately by the powerful basenotes – and when I say powerful, I mean overwhelming. There is a potent cedar here that reads as wet, pungent, almost musky with that sour edge I dislike in the note, and when it buts up against the sweet, juicy top notes, the result is like throwing a thick pear juice onto a bed of ashes. This unsettling accord (fruit juice thrown into dirty ashes) is also what I experience from Soleil de Jeddeh by Stephane Humbert Lucas 777, another fragrance I’m struggling to get my head around.
The musky, sour cedar is quickly joined by one of the most obnoxious notes in all perfumery (for me personally), fir balsam. This note might make others think of Christmas, but to me, it always makes me think of sweat. Each of the five times I tried Baccarat Rouge 540, it dried down to this thin but obnoxious smell of dried runner’s sweat – I know it’s the fir balsam because I’ve experienced this once before, with Annick Goutal’s otherwise very lovely Encens Flamboyant. Pure sweat. It’s a hard association to shake.
The saltiness from the Ambroxan or ambergris note (whatever it is) doesn’t help much either. Its salty mineral smell brings a pleasant outsdoorsiness, yes, but it also brings forward that sensation of feeling your skin crackle with dried sea salt, sweat, and sun tightness after falling asleep on the beach after a swim. Pleasant in perfumes such as Eau des Merveilles, but joined with the wet, musky cedar and the sweaty fir balsam of Baccarat Rouge 540, it’s simply one drop of sweat too much. Some will find this salt-sweat note very sensual, sexy even – but it just makes me want to go take a shower.
Ah, Guerlain Shalimar, the ur-Oriental. Sitting down to write a review of Shalimar kind of feels like looking up at the top of Mount Everest and wondering how the hell even to begin the ascent. It seems to cover (in one single bottle) a lot of the themes and notes people go looking for in separate perfumes – you want vanilla, it’s the textbook example, you want smoke and incense, well you got that too, you want amber, it is the mother of all modern ambers, you want animalics and leather, ditto. If you also happen to be the type of person who is interested in freaky notes, like baby diaper, burning tires, tar, and slightly rancid butter, then, why yes, Shalimar also has you covered.
It’s not an easy perfume to love right off the bat. Don’t get me wrong, Shalimar is easy to love, but the actual falling in love bit is not immediate. It took me ten days of wearing it before I could even tolerate it, let alone love it, but I got there and in end, it clicked for me, and that was it. Pure love. The everlasting kind. Whenever I see someone saying, oh I just don’t get Shalimar, or oh Shalimar hates my skin, you know what I am thinking? You’re just not trying hard enough. Put your back into it. If you can’t commit a week or ten days out of your life to understanding Shalimar, then not only are you cheating yourself out of experiencing one of the best perfumes ever made, you are also missing the opportunity to “get” most orientals that came after Shalimar.
For, once you unlock Shalimar, you start to see that Serge Lutens’ Ambre Sultan is just a snapshot of a portion of Shalimar (principally the amber and herbes de provence) blown up 150% and turned sideways. Etro’s Shaal Nur is an abbreviated essay on the incense and opoponax in Shalimar. Mono di Orio’s excellent Vanille is a modern take on the woodsy vanilla of Shalimar. You can spot echoes of Shalimar in Chypre Palatin (vanilla and animalics), Fate Woman (bergamot and powder) and Bulgari Black (vanilla, rubber, smoke). Whether perfumers are aware of it or not, most of today’s grand orientals refer at least in part back to the ur-Mother Oriental herself.
Forgive my wittering on. For all of that, Shalimar smells absolutely wonderful, grand, lush, smoky, sexy, comforting, and warm. The opening, as I’ve mentioned, is jarring to the nth degree, especially if you’re not used to it. I don’t know whether it’s the particularly stinky grade of Bergamot that Guerlain use, or the way it clashes with the vanilla, but the top notes smell curdled and rancid, like when you pour lemonade into cream. The vanilla itself smells tarry and burned, like rubber tires piled high and set on fire. Somehow, somewhere underneath all of that, there appears a slightly horrifying note of soiled diapers, or at least baby powder that has been caked into the creases of a baby’s bottom. It smells sort of unclean, and is pungent enough to singe your nose hairs off.
Here’s the odd thing – after you get used to Shalimar, you start to actively crave the weird opening. When you begin to go “Mmmmmmm” rather than holding your breath, this is a sign that you’ve crossed the line. Welcome! It’s like a Shibboleth for hard-core fans of Shalimar – we’re all over here at the other side of the line, and everyone else is pressing their noses to the glass, shaking their heads and saying, “I think you have Stockholm Syndrome”
After the “horrific” first half hour (for which you may want to refrain from sniffing your wrists if you are smelling it for the first time), it is an easy ride from there on in. Sweet, smoky vanilla poured on top of a long, golden, powdery amber, with accents of leather, smoking resins, and animalic musks. It has this neat trick of smelling comforting/familiar and yet ultra-sexual at the same time. It lasts all day and, in my humble opinion, is just fantastic in whatever concentration and vintage you wear. Yes, the vintage parfum is the deepest and smokiest, but we can’t always be wearing that (for reasons of finances as well as time and place), so it’s good to know that Shalimar is still recognizably the same Shalimar in the weakest EDC as it is in the parfum – thinner, yes, but still, you wouldn’t mistake her for anybody else. For me, it is true love, and a top five perfume forever. It is like my second skin.
This is a beautiful piece of work, and entirely fitting with Claude Marchal’s focus on commissioning perfumes that nod at French classicism without getting bogged down in pastiche. Parfums MDCI La Belle Helene has the feel of an old school fruit chypre but none of the somber tone that characterizes most of the classic examples. It opens with a shimmering pear note that’s realistic without straying into Pear Drop or acetone territory, and sharpened with juicy tangerine. Held aloft by a spackle of fizzing aldehydes, the opening notes smell slightly boozy and metallic, like the feeling you get when you knock back a glass of champagne too quickly. It’s sweet though – you have to be ok with some sweetness to like it. I do, and for me, the sweetness of La Belle Helene falls – just – within acceptable limits.
I love the start, but really, the best is yet to come. The heart notes are comprised of orris butter, plum, myrrh, rose, and osmanthus, which meld to forge a most wonderful vintage lipstick or cosmetic powder smell. It smells absolutely gorgeous – soft, rosy, waxy, and creamy. Literally, like the most expensive and most luxurious body cream you could ever afford, perhaps one of those Chanel ones that come in the white box. The osmanthus, in particular, provides an apricot jam note that is close to edible. What’s even more impressive is that the pear note is still present and detectable in the heart notes, and casts its bright, green fruit aroma over everything. At some point, the iris starts to dominate things a bit, and the perfume takes on a more powdery character.
By the time La Belle Helene reaches its drydown, much of the sweet fruits and florals have been whittled away to reveal a more adult backbone of sandalwood, moss, and patchouli. The landing is soft rather than bitter, and has an inky cocoa feel to it, an effect deliberately created, I am guessing, to suggest the dark chocolate sauce that is poured over the poached pears and whipped cream of the famous dessert this fragrance is named for (Poires Belle Helene). Delicious and elegant – a real gourmand treat in the beginning, and then a chypre in the base.